Americans elected Donald Trump, president. As a candidate, Trump ran on castigating and delegitimizing the media. Quality journalism may be more important now than at any point in American history. The media, at least in the modern era, has never been less equipped to offer it. Here are four broad challenges journalism must address, in the 2016 election’s wake.
How to Handle Social Media
Journalists get their news through Twitter. Much of their readership gets its news through Facebook. Both fuel the unconscious creation of echo chambers. These echo chambers divide people right and left. They exacerbate and entrench those divisions. Political sides no longer debate issues. They have different conversations, about different “facts.”
Media members, myself included, have had reservations about Facebook acting as a content arbiter. But, the greater danger may be no content arbitration at all. During the 2016 Election, we saw the ease with which actors infused those echo chambers with misinformation. When much of the electorate gets “news” from scrolling through Facebook headlines on mobile devices, whatever authority traditional outlets had erodes.
Mark Zuckerberg argued the misinformation spread on Facebook did not influence voters. It’s a curious claim since Facebook’s business model is selling Facebook’s ability to influence users to advertisers. Whatever the ultimate impact, Zuckerberg, as well as most journalists, would be surprised about the “facts” even well-educated Trump supporters took away from the Wikileaks revelations.
Journalists need to break free from their echo chambers and to discover some way to pierce those of others.
Finding the Right Balance
Journalism strives to be the center between left and right. Coverage, for the benefit of readers, should be objective, fair, and diligent toward both sides. That’s not a bad impulse. But, correcting for it cannot be the overriding concern.
There was a disparity between the sides in this election. Journalism met grave, unprecedented threats to American democracy with tepid headlines and false equivalences posing as equanimity. While fretting over that political bias, much of the national media ignored other influential biases. The media world is very white and affluent. The media world is also very coastal and urban. Claims about media elitism do have merit.
Many political journalists come from affluent backgrounds. Many attended the same elite universities and live in the same areas as people in Washington, on Wall Street, and working in Silicon Valley. That rearing carries a weight of implicit assumptions about how the world operates, particularly about trade, technological progress, and automation.
Media coverage focused on the most extreme elements of the Trump support, which were jarring. But, the voice of the white working class, for the most part, was not heard or respected. Very real economic grievances and sides of issues went uncovered. That proved to be the salient issue this election. Those voters flipped the Rust Belt and the electoral college.
Journalistic balance is a worthy goal, if not a necessity. But, implementing actual balance is harder and takes more rigorous self-assessment than skating between Democrat and Republican.
Reliance on Mathematical Modeling
Statistical analysis defines our society. We have an implicit faith in the primacy of data and algorithms to assess and to predict human behavior. Numbers, whatever the source, appear to us to have a better grounding than conventional wisdom. That does not mean they do.
The trouble is elections are more fluid and complex than baseball. Modeling of this election ranged from “off” to “way off” this cycle. Much of it relied upon polling, which is useless if the sample and composition are not significant, which was the case in battleground states.
Compounding that problem is the present media climate. The failing business model has gutted impactful, local journalism in much of “flyover country.” People in these areas from a national perspective often get reduced to arcane data points with predictable behavior patterns. We get a lot of polls and educated guesses of what is happening from them. But, there is a dearth of on the ground knowledge entering the marketplace.
The side with the most sophisticated data and modeling operation lost. Media data and modeling missed it. For all the odiousness the Trump campaign put out, the side with a more charismatic candidate who addressed the concerns of the swing voters in the election won. In retrospect, that seems to be common sense.
Statistical projections do have value. But, they have to be deployed and consumed as part of a more holistic analysis. Humanities majors still have something to offer.
Journalism’s purpose is to convey objective, factual information to the public, enabling voters to make educated decisions. There’s a perception that journalism has drifted away from that and media outlets are more concerned with “ratings,” “clickbait,” and the cheap controversies that drive them.
The simple answer: they have. Media outlets serve a public purpose. But, they are businesses. Businesses need financing to sustain themselves. Internet users don’t want to pay for subscriptions to media outlets. Revenue, therefore, comes from advertising based on through traffic. Money is scarcer than it was in print. There is a natural inclination to maximize revenue.
We get the journalism we deserve and for which we are willing to pay. There aren’t that many benevolent billionaires. Republicans controlling much of the government is not conducive to funding robust public media.
Media outlets, in particular on the local level, need to find a better way to market their journalism for the 21st Century. Consumers who value it must be more receptive to paying for it.